Faith in Faith

I have occasionally encountered bumper stickers on cars or little decorative hangings in living rooms that say, simply, “Believe,” and every time part of me shouts inwardly, “…in what?” It is akin to hearing the last note of a song that does not resolve properly, which leaves one in a frustrated anticipation of the proper final note.

Though it is often seemingly regarded as profound, as a command to “believe” it is utterly meaningless, being altogether devoid of a context that would allow one to decide in what to believe, since it is just as possible to believe, for instance, that lying is a virtue as it is to believe that it is a vice. It is precisely the type of decoration one would expect to see in a home inhabited by people who have embraced a postmodern worldview, in which “truth” is that which one fashions for himself. Postmodernism or relativism regards the act of merely believing, of having faith in anything, as a virtue, and it has no regard for discerning what corresponds to reality because “truth” is neither objective nor absolute. As long as one has a belief, whatever it may be (though presumably not the belief that postmodernism is false), one can be a good postmodernist. Faith, and not its object, is what counts, and in that sense postmodernists embrace faith in faith.

Something so vague and ambiguous is to be expected of people who consciously affirm a relativistic philosophy, but it is even more curious when it is displayed by Christians. A bumper sticker on a Christian’s car that only says, “Believe.”, achieves exactly nothing aside from succeeding in making their car look tacky. Believe in what? In who? Jesus? Buddha? Allah? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

It is a small thing, perhaps, but it seems to me to be just another example of the descent into the postmodernist milieu.

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Passing the Plate: A Good Idea?

As someone who values tithing, the tradition of “passing the plate” still always makes me uncomfortable. It is not that the two are necessarily contradictory, but it does seem to unnecessarily add social pressures to the act of giving to the church. Why should anyone see me give or not give when it is none of their business? On the subject of giving to the needy, Jesus commanded his disciples to “be careful not to do [their] ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” and to “not let your left hand to know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be secret” (Matt 6:1-4). How does passing the plate, or any other form of giving that requires one to act publicly, comply with this?

I have heard that churches that pass the plate see an increase in income than those that do not. But is increased giving over other churches that use more passive methods really better if it is in any way compulsory? “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 8:7). If there is higher giving in churches that pass the plate (because they pass the plate), then it is for either of two reasons: 1.) people’s laziness has engulfed them to the extent that they will only give when the option is literally placed in their lap, in which case their main priority is not giving to the church, but appealing to their own laziness, or 2.) they give as a result of perceived social pressures. I spoke to someone yesterday who said that her father (a non-Christian) will give, but only if the plate comes to him, because he feels compelled to do so. The church should not want his money because he is hardly a “cheerful giver.” The intention of passing the plate might not be to compel people to give, but it is nevertheless perceived in such a way by those to whom the plate is passed.

I maintain that even with the use of checks or some other method, which may conceal the actual amount given, it is no one else’s business to observe whether one gives anything on a particular occasion or not. Even people who otherwise would not care cannot help noticing who does and does not contribute something to the plate. Why insist on making people do it publicly when there are alternatives?

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice of passing the plate, but even if the intent is not to pressure people, even subtly, to give by putting them “on the spot,” so-to-speak, it still seems inappropriate to me, given that we are commanded to give in secret and without compulsion. Provide people with a way to give that doesn’t require them to be seen by others.

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The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

Writing Letters

There are seemingly very few advances, technological or otherwise, that are genuine advances in every respect, since often a great increase must be achieved at the expense of something else. For photography, we sacrificed painting; for television, books; for America, lives; and, in the case of email and cell phones, we have largely sacrificed meaningful correspondence with each other. The reasons for the decline in letter-writing are as numerous as they are obvious, given the momentum of undeniably practical communication technology, and there are no signs of (and perhaps no widely compelling reasons for) its return. In speaking of ‘letter-writing’ I do not mean to refer to the still common practice of taking a family photo, scribbling a greeting on the reverse, and mass-mailing it to all one’s acquaintances during the holiday seasons. No, I mean the arguably old-fashioned habit of penning intimate letters, sometimes of significant length, to one’s friends and family. Perhaps my use of the term ‘lost’ in the title is too hasty a judgment, but whether or not the practice has actually undergone a full interment is beside the point.

One might well argue that it is now quite unnecessary and impractical to take the time to write a lengthy letter (or even a letter at all) when such more practical methods exist which allow greater frequency in a given correspondence; and as to its impracticality, I would readily agree. But it can only be considered unnecessary if one is willing to forfeit the obviously great significance of a hand-written letter. We fool ourselves into thinking that that which is ‘practical’ is ‘best,’ but unless the Pragmatists are correct, this could not be further from the truth. For if it were true that there is nothing to be gained in the sacrifice of the practical, then a rejection of every obsolete and inefficient practice would form the basis for a philosophy very much like Pragmatism; and yet anyone who has made even a small sacrifice for the sake of someone else implies that he believes there is such a thing as Good and that it is not synonymous with Efficiency. In light of its utter impracticality, the effort to write each other should perhaps be granted a promotion. For a friendship conducted on the basis of practicalities is a friendship in name only; and I am loathe to think of what joy I would be deprived if, instead of an hour’s conversation, my closest friends should always decline in favor of mopping the floor.

An increased rarity and impracticality have imbued personal letters with an even further significance: a significance which, I think, is not often taken for granted, but as yet has proven to be an insufficient motivator, since even a prevailing sense of gratitude in receiving a warm letter from a friend is usually not enough to induce us into action. This is certainly as true of me as of anyone else, for in lamenting the decline of the practice I am merely making myself out to be a hypocrite. Like the Apostle, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Rom 7:15).” Though the success of any sort of relationship is, of course, not predicated on a particular medium of communication, it seems to me wholly naive to think that in refusing to write letters we are not depriving ourselves of something truly beneficial (if not beneficial, at least something pleasant). A hand-written letter carries with it an undeniable and irreplaceable meaning, and there are things we tend to write by hand that otherwise would remain unsaid. I have received meaningful emails and text messages, all of which I greatly appreciate; but if asked to choose between my ever-revolving inbox or my dusty drawer full of ‘war’ letters, I should take the latter in an instant and without the least tinge of regret.

Much of what we know about history and the persons involved, their motivations, perceptions, and feelings, is borne out in their diaries and letters to each other, and that a whole generation or series of generations should be generally devoid of such kinds of records is regrettable; but the lack of records is not the real loss. Rather, it is the intangible deficit in our interactions with each other. I agree with Lewis that “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).” If friendship gives value to survival, letter-writing almost certainly gives value to friendship, and the diminishment of the practice should succeed only after our greatest efforts to resist it.

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On Atheism and Evil

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

So writes atheist and eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller The God Delusion.

 Reveling in Mr. Dawkins’ scathing wit, and brandishing such quotes as weapons, devoted followers of the “New Atheism,” as it has been called, seek to vociferously evangelize the masses sheepishly duped by the trappings of religion. The charges against religion, and Christianity in particular, are copious in number, and if the whole were to be distilled, the remainder would be a weighty moral indictment. The gist of Dawkins’ above remarks, and indeed the bulk of the allegations leveled at Christianity, are that God, the Bible, Christianity, Christians or all four are not just false, but are in some way evil.

One could say (quite rightly, I think), that Dawkins’ affections for religiously-inclined persons are minimal at best. However, the problem does not lie in his manifest dislike for Christians or their God but in the implicit notion that if the Old Testament texts are true, God is guilty of a moral infraction. In light of this, two serious problems inevitably arise.

First, if Mr. Dawkins’ moral judgment is to carry any weight, he must first establish a legitimate basis in which to ground objective moral values. By “objective moral values” I mean moral values that are binding whether or not anyone believes in them. For if moral values are ultimately subjective or relative, then all moral allegations are reduced to mere opinion and thus become as trivial as one’s preference for, say, a particular flavor of ice cream. But Dawkins’ is not simply stating eloquently his dislike for the God of the Bible. He means that if God does exist and did in fact do the things alleged in the Old Testament, God is therefore wrong on moral grounds.

But on what basis can Mr. Dawkins make this claim if he intends to refer to something more compelling than his own personal opinion? In making the claim that God is evil, one assumes, naturally, that there is such a thing as evil. If one assumes there is such a thing as evil, then he assumes there is such a thing as good. If there is such a thing as good and evil, then there must be a Moral Law by which to differentiate between good and evil. If there is such a thing as a Moral Law, there must be a Moral Law-Giver in which such a Law is grounded.

Regarding morality’s objectivity, even many atheists acknowledge the necessity for a transcendent Authority. J.L. Mackie, a vehement anti-theist, writes:

We might well argue…that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervenient upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of ordinary events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (quoted by J.P. Moreland, “Reflections on Meaning in Life Without God.” The Trinity Journal, 9 NS, 1984, p. 14).

Those wishing to dispute the notion that a Moral Law-Giver is necessary for the existence of objective moral values must justify their position. Dawkins, while obviously rejecting the existence of God, provides no such justification anywhere in his writings and therefore implicitly accepts all the premises but insists on rejecting the conclusion. In effect, he borrows from theism in an attempt to prove it false!

G.K. Chesterton summed up this contradiction in his book Orthodoxy:

“But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.

The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Thus, as a matter of intellectual consistency, the atheist must provide a basis for objective moral values before he may level the barrels of morality at Christianity (or anyone else, for that matter). Yet, far from attempting such a justification, Dawkins manages to cut off the very branch upon which he sits, saying:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1992, p.133)

If “there is, at the bottom…no evil,” then just what does Dawkins mean by describing God in such a way as to imply that He is evil? Dawkins’ moral outrage seems incoherent and pitifully insignificant given his view that we live in a world of “blind, pitiless indifference.” In the absence of an appeal to a Moral Law, why should anyone regard Dawkins’ indictment as having any authority whatsoever? Again, is there such a thing as an objective good and an objective evil or not? Atheism, not just Dawkins, leaves us completely devoid of a coherent answer.

Second, the view that it is even possible for God to be evil is itself rather puzzling. The Christian view is that God is an omnipresent, omniscient, all-powerful, morally perfect, self-existent, personal, necessary, being. In essence, God is the greatest conceivable Being. If, however, for the sake of argument, Dawkins assumes this view of God for his critique, what then does he mean by implying that God is evil? If God is, indeed, the greatest conceivable Being, then it is manifestly impossible for God to be subject to anything else, including, in this case, a Moral Law external to His nature. For if God were subject or subservient to some external Moral Law, then He would not be God, since He would therefore cease to be the greatest conceivable Being. Given this consideration, Dawkins is faced with the problem of explaining how his own moral judgment might have any credibility when the object of his criticism is the God of the universe.

However, if Dawkins does not assume for the sake of his argument that the God of the Bible exists, then at whom, and by what authority, is he directing his diatribe? For if God does not exist (as it is clear Dawkins believes), then one is again faced with the irksome difficulty of objective moral justification. It seems Dawkins is at an impasse: If God exists, moral values must necessarily be grounded in His nature, and attempts to criticize his nature fall resolutely flat. If God does not exist, moral values are merely subjective and any moral judgments are reduced to utter trivialities. Many atheists correctly seem willing to admit the latter.

Though in conversation the admission of morality’s relativity is often readily made for the sake of its apparent consistency with an atheistic framework, one may rightly wonder at the expeditious nature of the outcry the moment that same person has experienced some perceived injustice. A man who has just been beaten and robbed does not simply shrug his shoulders, dust himself off, and proceed to go about his business in the knowledge that we live according to forces that may ultimately be characterized as blind, pitiless, and indifferent. No, there is instead an instant appeal to a sense of moral ought-ness which has just been violated. The argument is wholly inconsistent with the action. This is precisely the contradiction identified by Chesterton. That the action (or reaction), the sense of having been wronged, is always involuntary is a fact that should be regarded with a great deal of suspicion by materialists (I say “materialists” because there exist atheists who nonetheless believe in the supernatural). Whence came such an innate moral conscience? What do the irrational forces to which materialists claim everything can be reduced have anything to do with a sense of moral ought-ness, whether perceived or real? While such a sense may certainly be affected by social pressures, the fact that it exists at all cannot reasonably be attributed to social cultivation. Young children who have not yet had exposure to the greater social sphere, nor possess the faculties enabling them to receive moral indoctrination, nonetheless exhibit the same basic sense of moral ought-ness as their parents. A child who has been taught nothing of stealing knows precisely when he has been stolen from.

Atheists bothered by both the prospect of accountability to a transcendent Moral Authority and by the alternative, a universe consistent with Nietzche’s nihilism, wholly void of any objective moral standard, have attempted the singular argument for morality’s objectivity without the postulation of a divine Authority. The attempt proves upon inspection to be rather unsubstantial, though its underlying motivation, the attempt to have the Good without the nuisance of accountability, should not inspire surprise. To suggest, for instance, that qualities universally regarded as “good” (justice, love, mercy, generosity, etc) simply exist of their own accord is but to beg the question. Without any situational context, what does it even mean to say that the abstract quality of “Justice” simply exists as a positive entity? How is this even possible? If materialism were true, a particular moral value would not be objective even if every person that had ever lived affirmed the goodness of it. For if there remains even the logical possibility of a single dissenter that particular moral value is inescapably subject to relativity. Therefore, in order for moral values to be objective, they must necessarily be grounded in something greater than human perception or understanding.

One must consider, then, just what kinds of things could even possibly serve as a ground for objective moral values. It seems obvious that the category of possibilities will inevitably be exceedingly limited. Human opinion has already been eliminated. As has been mentioned, and J.L. Mackie affirmed, objective moral values are at least reasonably grounded in the nature of God. If this is so, then objective moral values must necessarily be grounded in something very much like God, if not God himself. If, however, the materialists are correct, and all the goings-on in the universe can ultimately be attributed, at bottom, to irrational, material forces, we seem to be out of options, given that anything remotely identifiable with the concept of a Divine Being cannot possibly exist. If there is one thing of which we may be certain, it is that objective moral values are not reasonably the product of material forces. If somehow they were, why should anyone feel compelled to adhere to them? And if they are not, then materialism is false. But if materialism is false, and objective moral values are in some way transcendent of the material world, is it not but a reasonable step to conclude that they are grounded in the nature of God?

The moral indictments frequently wielded against Christianity are therefore without a legitimate starting point. If the atheist wishes to be able to use morality as a point of argument in his critique, he must first establish the objectivity of his claims or else abandon them to the realm of the inconsequential.

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The Road to Progress?

While skimming the local newspaper this morning, my attention was arrested by a list of local public schools and their corresponding School Performance Scores (SPS). For anyone who values education, the scores were abysmal. While in most cases there were slight increases in SPS from 2010 to 2011, the letter grades representing the schools’ final score were enough to make one cringe. The list was rather objectively titled “The Road to Progress,” but I wondered whether it was as a result of an acknowledgement of the pitiful state of Louisiana’s education system that the author had not, in a spirit of greater positivity, titled the article “On the Road to Progress;” perhaps it was merely for lack of space.

Louisiana is embarrassingly and unquestionably in the lowest tiers of public education in the United States, and has been for quite some time. The question is not, then, where Louisiana falls in the ranks or how to find ways to justify moving it up a few notches on the scale, but, rather, what to do about the problem. Is the fact that Louisiana’s school system is failing to adequately educate its students a result of lack of funding? (I am certain there are areas in which more funds would be beneficial.) Is it a result of a lack of state or federal programs? (This is doubtful.) Is it the result of unqualified teachers? (In some cases, perhaps.) But I would maintain that the source of the problem is found in none of these things. Instead, it is the result of a state of affairs far more terrible, infinitely more daunting, than even the combination of these other issues. That is, the dreadful reality that students are largely part of a culture that is, at worst, antagonistic to learning and, at best, apathetic about it; and it is not the students who are to blame, but the parents.

In speaking with a woman who teaches at one of the local high schools, she indicated that while her direct frustration is dealing with apathetic and unruly students in the classroom, the greater disappointment lay in the fact that the parents are, almost without exception, just as indifferent in regards to their children’s education as the children are to their own. Recently, a parent-teacher conference was held at her high school. Not a single parent arrived on behalf of any of her students. For teachers whose true motivation is to see their students learn, this is a seemingly insurmountable problem, one that is understandably de-motivating in the most profound way: teaching students, often with great difficulty in the process, to actually value learning, only to have them taught the reverse at home.

As is quite obvious, parents apathetic about their child’s education tend to be apathetic in other areas as well, such as discipline, and teachers who would otherwise prefer to spend time helping students learn the material instead find themselves performing a role more akin to that of riot police. Ideally, teachers should rarely have to take disciplinary measures, since any actions in that vein should merely be reinforcements of that with which the children are already being inculcated at home. But the world of the ideal is not the one in which we live, and teachers are being forced to perform the dual role of parent and teacher at the great expense of the child’s education. The sentiments I would like to express to these parents, at least in the way I feel like framing them, are not fit for print.

Motivating students to learn has enough difficulties of its own, but how does one encourage parents to reject a dispassionate attitude? Is it even possible on a large scale? Throwing money at the problem, creating new initiatives, new programs, seem like far too simplistic solutions to a deeply-rooted and complex issue that has far more to do with philosophy than it does financial and bureaucratic deficits. I wish that I could here begin my neatly-outlined Three-Point-Solution plan, but I have none; the problem is immense, and I have only just considered it. But a clear understanding of the problem is at least the first step to true progress, and in Louisiana there is much room for it.

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A Matter of Common Decency

As those of you who keep an ear to the ground are by now well aware, there is currently a considerable buzz over the Cordoba Institute’s plans to build a mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero. The plans, headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, are to turn the old Burlington Coat Factory building into a mosque, museum, and Islamic cultural center, costing upwards of $100 million. It seems unlikely anyone would dispute calling the plans to build such a facility so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks “ambitious,” but many would prefer the term “galling.”

The memory of 9/11 is still fresh in the minds of many Americans, particularly those who lost a friend or family member in the attacks, and it seems a blatant insult, a breach of common decency, even, to erect a structure of this nature in such proximity to the place where thousands died at the hands of Muslim extremists (or fundamentalists, depending on who you ask).

Those in favor of the mosque’s construction claim that the First Amendment protects the Cordoba Institute’s right to proceed with its plans. Indeed it does. What the First Amendment fails to do, however, is nullify the ill effects the construction of the mosque would undoubtedly produce. The First Amendment mantra has been so oft-repeated in defense of the most abrasive (abusive?) actions that those touting it have apparently become callous to the grave insensitivity of their words and deeds. This seems as true in this case as in the abhorrent protests of military funerals by the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. There is, in the minds of these “First Amendmentists,” if you will, a sense that “if it’s legal, it’s right.” Of course, for any person who believes in a morality transcendent of law, this is absurd (assuming sensitivity to the feelings of others is considered a virtue), but I digress.

It can be taken as certain that if the “Ground Zero Mosque,” as it has been called, is completed Muslims all around the world, and especially those responsible for 9/11, will regard it as a victory for Islam. For any Muslim who supported the attack, whether openly or privately, it will be an unquestionable stamp of divine approval to have a 13-story mosque tower over the rubble of what was formerly a powerful symbol of the West’s success. Mr. Rauf has condemned the terrorist attacks, but the sincerity of his condemnation seems inversely proportional to his committment to proceed with the project against the wishes of those still grieving the attacks.

In light of the commonplace over-emphasis on political correctness these days, the amount of surprise I would express in learning that the mosque had been completed in the future would be…well, low. However, there is a not-so-subtle irony in the fact that only in a country where the freedoms of its citizens are valued could an undertaking such as this occur. I’m thinking of something quite different, of course, than the Islamic states in which Sharia law is legally enforced, where even verbal dissent from Islamic doctrines is met with punishments that make a Quentin Tarantino film look tame. Respect for views contrary to one’s own is a virtue seen only Islamic countries in which the fire of liberty has begun to kindle a flame bright enough to scorch the stiflingly oppressive traditions held by Muslims for hundreds of years. Such tolerance is unlikely the product of scholarly exegesis of the Qur’an or Hadith. If it were, it seems Muslims for the past several hundred years must have either failed to get the memo or manifestly ignored it. Yet Mr. Rauf will piggyback on the very principles of liberty and freedom absent in most Islamic states in order to advance a religion that detests them! I don’t blame him (who wouldn’t take advantage of such a great opportunity?), but I can’t decide whether to regard the move as cunning or appalling. I suppose it could be both.

Seeing as the construction of a mosque in this context is only possible under the freedoms protected by our Constitution, it would seem appropriate for Mr. Rauf to encourage the propagation of similar freedoms abroad in Islamic countries as an act of reciprocity. The chances of this occurring, however, are vastly outweighed by the likelihood that Mr. Rauf’s true desire, whether or not it is publicly espoused, is to see the world become an Islamic state, as do most Muslims. It is likely his current proclamations enjoining peaceful interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims are simply the most effective means to advance Islam in the current American context, whether or not there is at the heart of his message a true desire to see views contrary to Islam ultimately protected by law.

Mr. Rauf has been hailed as a moderate for his emphasis on peaceful co-habitation of Islam and other faiths, and he has even attempted to quell the uneasiness by reminding us that the center will house a memorial to those who died on 9/11, but there is nothing moderate about his insistence on continuing with a project that he surely knows will strike many as a barefaced assertion of Islamic power.

In the words of Mr. Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, who is the head of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), “Only in New York City is this possible.”

I hope she’s right.

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Post-Election Thoughts

Regardless of all the various affectations expressed at the election of our latest President, some of jubilation, some of despair, one fact remains: Barack Hussein Obama is the President of the United States of America. The American people have spoken. This fact, regardless of whatever emotion it happens to evoke, is one that we must accept.

However, in all the various remarks I have encountered concerning the election, there is one underlying notion in many of them that I deem to be rather peculiar. It is that there seems to have been expressed a tremendous amount of exultation over the fact that “history has been made,” in that Obama is the first black President of the United States. It is as if people regard “making history” as somehow inherently good.
A particular event is not good simply because it is unprecedented, for certainly there have been unprecedented events that “made history” and yet undeniably mar our past. This present moment in history can only legitimately be regarded as “good” if Obama indeed proves to move America in a positive direction. And yet there are some, especially within the black community, who, seeing in this man some sort of iconic representation of delivery from a perceived oppression, base their joy in his election solely on his color. The race of the President should have absolutely nothing to do with his election, and yet, as is quite obvious, some have expressed an almost religious devotion to “making history” by electing the first black President. This, my friends, is both absurd and naive. Being President of the United States isn’t a right – it’s a privilege that should be granted only in the presence of those qualities that, observed under close scrutiny, the American people deem necessary for leading a nation.

My main point is this: setting a precedent is not inherently good. Thus, only in retrospect can such judgments truly be made. Time will eventually grant us the means necessary to look back upon this moment in history and declare with some degree of certainty whether or not the unprecedented election of Barack Obama as President of the United States was a great achievement or a disastrous mistake.

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On Having Returned From War

On our very first patrol through the city of Barwanah, I was conscious of a sense of surreality surrounding the fact that I was in a place in which it was possible, nay, even likely, for me to be seriously injured or killed. This realization, while both a bit unpleasant and yet seemingly inevitable for anyone arriving in a combat zone for the first time, did not inspire fear, but brought my mind out of the realm of speculation as to what “war” would be like and into the reality that I was actually in one. Whether the lack of fear was due to confidence in my comrades and our training, or to naïveté in regards to the potential horrors of actual combat, I do not know. Perhaps it was both.

It was difficult to maintain a combat mindset when the better part of a patrol often consisted of either eating with and greeting the locals or trying to give children candy or a pen without them tearing each other apart for it. Our battle was one against complacency; one which, if I am to be honest, we often lost. I would be surprised to discover that someone regarded any of these former activities as those characteristic of war, and indeed they did not fit into the stereotypical notion of war that even I held before our deployment. In light of that view, what we experienced really was not war at all. Yet, these public-relations-type missions were precisely the kind that became the day-to-day grind. While it was singularly frustrating for us, having chosen and prepared to experience war in its more stereotypic form, I knew that our job was a necessary one and that our considerable boredom would likely be something for which veterans who harbor terrible memories would encourage us to be grateful.

It is for this reason that I feel a tremendous sense of guilt every time a veteran from a past war is kind enough to shake my hand (as they did in the airport during both our departure and our return), for I know it is likely that my experience cannot realistically be compared to his and yet display any significant degree of similarity. How does one follow in the footsteps of heroes of, for instance, the second World War? This burden weighs heavily on my mind from time to time. I would honestly be embarrassed to recount most of my experiences in Iraq to any WWII veteran. So comparatively easy our deployment must have been! Granted, this is a different war against a different enemy in different times, but even this knowledge is incapable of putting my mind at ease. Perhaps if the conditions presented themselves I would be able to conduct myself in a manner worthy of mention among the numerous stories of bravery of veterans past; perhaps I would not, though, naturally, I prefer to dwell on the former. One simply cannot know how one’s conduct would fair in a given situation without actually having been in that situation. It is a fact of life, frustrating as it may be at times. Of course, I do not have such a skewed view of things as to desire combat merely in order to gauge my own reaction to it, but it is a question that I cannot help asking myself and one that I am certain many of my comrades have asked themselves as well.

One last item I must mention is that during the entire course of our mobilization, deployment, and return, I have been overwhelmed by the support that I have received. Whether it is a kind gesture, a gift, a card, a prayer, or a Facebook message, I have been inundated by people’s kindness and generosity. Many of these people I do not even know.
I remember our stop in Shannon, Ireland on the way to Iraq. As we entered the airport, the Irish people burst into a standing ovation behind a wall of glass separating the terminal from the lobby, whistling and displaying every kind of friendly gesture. It took a considerable effort to retain my bearing, so deeply did this affect me, and I regretted the fact that I could not make them understand just how much it meant to me.
Similarly, during both my departure from and return to my home town, I was surprised by a large group of supporters, mostly from my church, complete with signs and flags, which encompassed the entire age spectrum. Each time I could but smile and hope that my futile attempts to thank those who were there did not come across as mechanical; for indeed they were but the mediocre verbal manifestations of a deeply felt gratitude.
For such unnecessary demonstrations of support, I am both tremendously grateful and insurmountably indebted. I can only hope that a simple “thank you” imparts with it enough of the actual feeling behind it to relieve me of some of this debt. Thank you.

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